The anxiety about whether it is seemly to feast one’s eyes on the moment of another man’s death is at least as old as Saint Augustine, who recounted in the “Confessions” the futile resistance his protégé Alypius made to the attractions of gladiator contests. When Alypius was dragged, resisting and protesting, to the arena by a gaggle of worldly friends, the young man closed his eyes so as to not see the bloodshed. But the roar of the crowd broke his will, and when he opened his eyes just momentarily — like the shutter of a camera going off — he was transfixed: “He was no longer the man who had come to the arena, but simply one of the crowd which he had joined, a fit companion for the friends who had brought him,” wrote Augustine.
The fear that we may be attracted to and corrupted by images of suffering is nothing new. And photographs of imminent death are only one extreme example of a larger body of images that fall into the guilty-pleasure category of images of distress. Define pain to include emotional distress, humiliation and even mild embarrassment, and one realizes that we spend an extraordinary amount of our lives taking pleasure in photographs of the hurt of others. Add in images that demonize our enemies, or make us feel smug, or appeal in some other way to the worse angels of our nature, and one has an enormously large, but often overlooked category of dark pleasure.
An enduring, visceral fascination
Call it the Ugly Image. Like it or not, these kinds of images give people a particular kind of pleasure, a glimpse at the disordered, frightening, repellent side of life, and often the disordered, frightening and repellent side of ourselves. The history of art is full of them and still today, in the hush of museum, it’s terrifying to feel the visceral tug of blood in a crucifixion painting, or hear the raucous, mocking laughter of soldiers casting lots for Christ’s clothes, or survey the tangle of naked corpses on a life raft lost in the billows of the sea. A 16th-century painting in London’s National Gallery, attributed to the Flemish painter Quentin Metsys, shows a woman elegantly attired, with a jeweled ornament in her headdress, rings on her fingers and ample breasts squeezed into a low cut dress. But her face is misshapen and beastly, her nose like a snout, and from her cheekbones to her shoulders, wrinkles gather like a sagging rubber mask.